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Florida Sport Fishing After the Hurricanes

by: Jim Dicken

Sitting in my comfortable computer chair typing away, I started to feel guilty. I am doing fine, but the guides, charters and fishing support businesses in Florida that I depend on for part my living had gone through a 6 week trauma that no State had ever seen in History. I decided it was time for a road trip to see just how bad the damage was, and to determine just what the state of the Sport Fishing Industry of Florida was after all of this.

4 Hurricanes in 6 weeks had damaged a wide area of the state. Charlie, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan had wreaked havoc on 3 different coasts. Charlie hit about 40 miles south of Tampa damaging seriously the coastal towns near Pine Island Sound. Orlando got hit 3 times by Charlie, Frances and Jeanne. The town seemed to be mostly recovered, but US 50 which runs through the town still had water on it on the West Side of Orlando. This was from 2 lakes on each side of the road.
Then Frances and Jeanne hit the East Coast, both hit within 6 miles of Fort Pierce one of the most popular Fishing Tournament Towns on the East Coast, and moving inland to hit Okeechobee City and the facilities on Lake Okeechobee. On the edge of that was the Stick Marsh and Farm 13 as well as Ansin Garcia lakes. I crossed the St. Johns River just outside of Orlando and thought I was crossing a large swamp. The river is at near record levels and is way outside its normal banks. I stopped and talked to Gator Bruce who operates A-Awesome Airboat Rides. Bruce told me that the river was up 9 feet over its normal levels in the area and that the fish were struggling due to the heavy winds which had dredged up dead material from the bottom of the river. This dead vegetation normally rests on the bottom decaying slowly. When it is lifted up and mixed in with the water is sucks oxygen out of the water to continue the decaying process, over the whole column of the water. Normally this is restricted to the lower water levels and is reduced by the packing of dead vegetation on the bottom.

I started my trip in Florida's Hurricane Alley with a trip down the coast Tuesday the 4th of October on Hwy 1, and on Hwy A1A. I visited with the folks at Whitey's Bait and Tackle near Titusville. The store was a bit worse for wear, but was open and operating. I talked to several guides at the store All said that fishing is good, but it is hard for folks to get in to them since the motels and hotels in the area are either damaged or full with Power Company workers from all over the country. Motels are available if you are willing to look for them. See Pictures of the Sebastian Inlet area.

I stayed in Boca with relatives for 2 days, who had been through both Hurricanes without too much damage. From Boca Raton South the damage is minimal, and the folks in the Keys were almost totally untouched bythe Hurricanes. Fishing there is good, and the motels and hotels are all open for business, as are the guides and charters, although suffering since tourism has dropped to nothing since the Hurricanes and reports of tough times getting motels in Florida. This is NOT the case in the Keys, and if your looking for some good fishing it is there.
I met Hugh Crumpler early Wednesday October 5, about 2 weeks after the last Hurricane, Jeanne had moved through the Stick Marsh - Ansin Garcia area. Fellsmere Farms and the town of Fellsmere where the 3 lakes are located was in the path of both Frances and Jeanne, and got plenty of rain from Charlie about 6 weeks before. The damage to the area was severe. Electricity was restored just 4 days before I got there from Jeanne. As I talked to Jeanne Middleton the electricity flickered, as it had done all day. Jeanne was on the phone with the Credit Card folks when I arrived. Jeanne is one of the owners of Middletons Stick Marsh Bait and Tackle and Middletons Fish Camp on Blue Cypress Lake. Seems the electricity flickering had damaged the machine and she was in danger of losing over $400.00 in charges for the day. No small sum for folks in this storm ravaged area. The tackle store is open for business as is the camp.

The good news is, they are battered, but not broken. The town has rebounded. Most businesses are open although the cosmetic work has not been started. Most gas stations I saw had damage to the awnings over the Gas Pumps, but Ice, Electricity and the basics were back to working order.

Fishing at Stick Marsh is almost back to normal, and Ansin Garcia is producing some great numbers of fish. Hugh Crumpler who helped me with this trip reported getting into one spot where the fish went crazy. 3 seperate schools of Bass hitting schools of bait fish on the surface. The 3 schools and a seperate group of fish working a current break produced over 100 fish in 4 hours. Not to mention that Hugh and his fishing partner invited some visitors to fish the same hole.
The most dramatic site was the difference in what 5 extra feet of water made to the scenery of the lake. Below are 2 pictures from the lake one from Hugh, and one I took while out with Hugh.

This picture was taken from approximately the same place as the picture above.
You can see the lake is way up. At least 4 feet above normal pool. And well above the stumps. The Twin Palms famous on the lake are gone.
The lake did take a huge hit as was evidenced by quite a few dead alligators on the lake. We say 4 and were told of several more. All died from the hurricane but no one seems to know what caused it.

The Safe House on the Wall seperating Stick Marsh from Farm 13 is gone. Hugh is not sure if the house blew away or if someone took it down before the Hurricane, so be careful if you fish the area near the house. It might be out in the lake waiting for your lower unit.

Wednesday afternoon I visited with Joe Ward in Fort Pierce. Joe owns a small tackle store on the water, or I should say did own one on the water, and owns Captain Joe's River Charters. Below is a picture of the where the front door of Joe's Tackle Store once stood.
I took a tour of the town of Fort Pierce and the docks and sport fising areas. Pictures of the devestation can be found at . Almost every single dock inFort Pierce was damaged or destroyed and those that were not may have to be reset according to Joe. The ramp next to the famous Black Pearl Pub off of Seaway Drive was open and clear, but the debris in the area was keeping all but the Coast Guard Cutter off the water. The Pub came through the Hurricane in one piece, but had a 3 story aluminum boat storage building blow over on it. The building had just been removed the day before I got there. There were boats in the harbor sunk in the Fishermans Warf area, and around most of the docks.The Coast Guard is making daily patrols looking for sunken boats in the main channels and in the Indian River area. Over 100 boats have been recovered and are sitting at a collection point near the Fisherman's Warf. Again the big problem with returning to Fort Pierce to fish is motel rooms. The Dockside Inn is almost back up and running. It lost a few rooms that will have to be rebuilt, and is somewhat worse for the wear afterthe hurricanes but the folks I talked too had a positive attitude and were looking forward to the Tournament Season that starts in January. Almost all of the businesses in the area sustained some damage, but most will be back up and running within weeks. Keep an eye out on for Joe Ward's Fishing Reports. Joe will update you weekly on the progress for theFort Pierce Area.

Lake Okeechobee is rising at rates that indicate it will reach the 18 foot level as of October 8. On the 8th it was at 17.85 inches and still rising. Only 4 times has the lake gone over the 18 foot level since the dike around the lake was built. The highest recorded level was 18.77 on Nov. 2 1947, 18.26 on March 1, 1983, 18.63 feet on Oct. 25 1995 and 18.46 feet on March 19, 1998. (Information is from the Palm Beach Post Newspaper Thursday October 7, 2004)

Okeechobee has not suffered from the same problems of other lakes. While the lake is a bit muddy in some areas and vegetation was stirred up, the inflows of large amounts of water has helped to keep the oxygen levels high enough for fish to want to feed.

The increased flows have shut down the Kissimmee River locks upriver from the lake, but also the locks seem to be the location of some of the best fishing. Current and wind driven current seem to be driving the fish. Bait fish have moved into areas that normally would not be open to fishing. Large areas of what is normally Marsh are now part of the lake and open to fishing. I went out with Butch Butler owner of and Eddie Perry of Okeechobee Adventures. We took a tour of the lake and found that there was a LOT of damage in the area, but that the lake itself is doing great. Fishermen are catching large numbers of fish, although not many lunkers. Butch told me that he and a client caught 30 fish in 4 hours the day after I left. We took a couple of dozen shiners the day we went out. Butch was looking for fish for his trip, and I was excited to get out on the lake. We caught 15 fish in just over 2 hours while moving quite a bit looking for pockets of fish.

The ramp at Okeetantee is open, but the docks are mostly up on the bank. One boat is sunk in the dock area out of the main channel
You can view pictures of the Okeetantie area and the Okeechobee Area here
Motels in the area seem to be OK, but rooms are tough to get with Power Workers there. However things looked to be getting back to normal and I did not see a lot of cars at the Flamingo Motel in town that I stayed at back in July so I am sure rooms are available.

The area Tackle Stores all seemed to be in good shape. I stopped in and talked to the folks at Garrard's Bait and Tackle. While the store did well during the hurricanes, the business over the last 6 weeks has been slower than normal. While the hurricane season comes in the hottest part of the year, when tourism is slowm it still comes during some of the best fishing of the year...See Article.

Basically the Sport Fishing Industry on the East Coast and Central Florida is back to working and all they need is customers. In the Keys there was almost no damage and fishing has returned to normal and the motels and hotels and resorts in South Florida are open for business.

I did not have time to visit the West Coast or the Pan Handle. In talking to some of the people there, the same problems exist. Guides and Charters are available but motel and hotel rooms are a tough find. My sincere recommendation is DONT STAY AWAY. These people need work. There is no insurance for guides and charters. If you want to fish an area where a hurricane hit, call the guide or charter and ask them for assistance in finding a room. What will hurt these people the most is not getting charters. Don't stop fishing your favorite area of Florida and if you have the time try to find a new guide or charter in an area hit hard by the hurricane.
Better yet, book a trip now for later in the year and make a deposit on the trip. The guides will appreciate it and so will I.

I was not paid in any way for this article nor were my expenses paid. I took this trip and wrote this article because I felt it was important for people in the Fishing Industry to know what was going on in Florida, and to see if maybe there was a way to help these folks out. There is a way.. as I said before, book a trip NOW. Make a deposit on the trip. Work out the dates, or leave them open. Most of these guides will work with you in these circumstances. If you normally fish with a guide on a regular basis, book a trip with an open date on it with the guide. He or She will appreciate it.
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